Meet Tiffany Cabán, the Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez-endorsed DA candidate who represents shift in New York

Caban is a progressive from New York who is pushing for criminal justice reform.

June 25, 2019, 5:56 AM

Just a few days before the Democratic primary on June 25, Tiffany Cabán, one of six Democratic candidates running for district attorney in Queens, New York, spent hours on the streets of Corona, a local neighborhood, joking about her newfound fame in between knocking on doors.

"There were some dark years when my mother had no pictures of me," she said. "I think now I'm making up for it."

Nearly a year to the day since Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez blindsided the political world in a stunning defeat of Democratic heavyweight Joe Crowley, the longtime congressman seen as a potential successor to now-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, another progressive challenger is attracting national attention in what might have been a low-profile race.

PHOTO: Tiffany Caban consults her campaign team while canvassing for votes in Queens, New York, June 21, 2019.
Tiffany Caban consults her campaign team while canvassing for votes in Queens, New York, June 21, 2019.
James Okungu/ABC News

"The corrupt Queens political machine doesn't want me to win," Cabán said in a campaign ad released earlier this month, outlining her quest to beat the entrenched Queens political apparatus that Ocasio-Cortez took on in 2018, and become the first public defender to ascend to the office of district attorney in New York.

Now, in the first test of Ocasio-Cortez's political influence in the community that propelled her to become the youngest person ever elected to Congress, the freshman congresswoman is backing Cabán, who also boasts the endorsements of two 2020 presidential candidates and progressive icons -- Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. -- in a crowded field that is once again the site of the intraparty split between the establishment wing of the Democratic party and rising progressive insurgents.

Warren first spoke to Cabán when they met briefly in March at one of her presidential campaign events in Queens. Sanders and Cabán spoke over the phone last week prior to his endorsement being announced.

Cabán's test comes to a head Tuesday when voters head to the polls to nominate a Democrat to replace longtime Queens District Attorney Richard Brown, who died in May and left an open seat for the first time since he was elected in 1991.

With a platform that largely mirrors Ocasio-Cortez's, the public defender brings her progressive bonafides to campaign events, rallies and canvasses, introducing herself as "queer, Latina, career public defender."

PHOTO: Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez appears on "This Week," June 16, 2019.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez appears on "This Week," June 16, 2019.
ABC News

For Cabán, her campaign will be an early signal of how progressive challengers may fare in local races ahead of the 2020 cycle. Although she faces five other competitors, the race appears to be between a tier comprised of Cabán, and two others: Queens Borough President Melinda Katz, who has the backing of the Queens political establishment, and former Supreme Court Judge Gregory Lasak, who led the major crimes division under Brown and aggressively prosecuted homicides.

"Katz is the presumed favorite -- endorsements from elected officials ... unions, and the Queens County organization (the machine)," wrote Douglas Muzzio, a professor of political science at Baruch College, in an email to ABC News. "Most intriguing of all the candidates is Tiffany Cabán … [The race] is proxy for the division in the Democratic Party with profound implications for 2020 and beyond."

Lasak, who is seen as the candidate who will take up the mantle from Brown, is running on his years of experience as a former judge and prosecuting "violent criminals."

"Greg Lasak spent his career putting away violent criminals and exonerating the innocent," campaign chairman Bill Driscoll said in a statement to ABC News. "That's why we believe that he'll be elected our next District Attorney tomorrow night. Because this job is too important and can't be treated as a landing pad for term-limited politicians or a launching pad for runs at higher office."

But for Katz, who has the endorsement of Governor Andrew Cuomo and others, her campaign insists that her "borough-wide coalition will make the difference on Election Day."

"Tiffany Caban's campaign has always relied on people from outside of Queens for support. The vast majority of her money doesn't even come from New York," a Katz campaign spokesperson told ABC News. "Melinda has represented the people of Queens for years, and has built deep relationships and trust throughout the Borough. Her support throughout the Borough is unmatched and reflects the confidence that people have in her to make change and lead Queens in a new direction."

PHOTO: Queens Borough President Melinda Katz speaks during a Queens District Attorney candidates forum at St. John's University in New York, June 13, 2019.
Queens Borough President Melinda Katz speaks during a Queens District Attorney candidates forum at St. John's University in New York, June 13, 2019.
Mary Altaffer/AP

If she wins, Cabán, 31, will join a progressive class of district attorneys recently elected in other major cities like Philadelphia and Boston who have rejected the "law-and-order" approach of their predecessors in favor of what they call a "decarceral" approach to law enforcement -- reversing large-scale incarceration.

"I just think it was a perfect storm of circumstances," Cabán told ABC News in an interview at her campaign headquarters, above a beauty salon in Jackson Heights. "It's communities saying: We're powerful. We can demand change."

In the wake of Warren and Sanders announcing their endorsements last week, the local race appears to be playing a role in the broader political sphere: Both 2020 candidates expressed a willingness to decriminalize sex work only after being asked about one of Cabán's more controversial positions.

"I'm open to decriminalization. Sex workers, like all workers, deserve autonomy, but they are particularly vulnerable to physical and financial abuse and hardship," Warren told the Washington Post in a statement last week, following suit with fellow 2020 Democrats Sens. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., and Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Reps. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, and Seth Moulton, D-Mass, according to Buzzfeed.

PHOTO: Queens District Attorney candidates from left, Jose Nieves, Mina Malik, Betty Lugo, Gregory Lasak, Rory Lancman, Melinda Katz, and Tiffany Caban participate in a candidates forum at St. John's University in New York, June 13, 2019.
Queens District Attorney candidates from left, Jose Nieves, Mina Malik, Betty Lugo, Gregory Lasak, Rory Lancman, Melinda Katz, and Tiffany Caban participate in a candidates forum at St. John's University in New York, June 13, 2019.
Mary Altaffer/AP

The Sanders campaign also confirmed to the Washington Post: "Bernie believes that decriminalization is certainly something that should be considered. Other countries have done this, and it has shown to make the lives of sex workers safer."

Cabán asserts that the national conversation is being shaped by the dialog on the ground in Queens.

"We're talking about having these conversations on a more national scale, and it's influencing people and causing people to ask of presidential candidates, what do you think of these criminal justice policies? For me, that is incredible," she said. "And these are long overdue conversations."

Young lawyer's candidacy reflects a changing borough

Cabán was only 3 years old when Brown first became Queens District Attorney in the early 1990s, offering a tough-on-crime approach that she now argues criminalized poverty and wreaked havoc in the borough's minority neighborhoods. (Brown's supporters said that he focused on quality-of-life crimes that mattered to his constituents, the Times said). Although she seeks to take his place, Cabán is his opposite in nearly every respect.

In addition to prostitution -- Brown helped shutter 10 brothels in 1998, according to a release -- she has issued a lengthy list of offenses that, as DA, she would decline to prosecute, including subway fare evasion and marijuana possession.

Congressman Greg Meeks, D-N.Y., who is endorsing Katz in the DA's race, said Warren and Sanders were mistaken to endorse Cabán.

"I don't know who they spoke with, but clearly they did not speak with the elected officials of Queens County or the people who elected them," the prominent political fixture said in a statement. "African Americans have the largest stake in this DA race. ...Yet Warren and Sanders saw fit to endorse without even considering what African Americans thought."

Meeks, the current chair of the Queens County Democratic Party who replaced Crowley, added: "If [Warren and Sanders] want to be president for all Americans, I suggest they speak with us before they decide to speak for all of us."

Cabán's burgeoning success in her five-month campaign also demonstrates how much New York has changed. In 1990, the year before Brown took over the DA's office, there were 2,262 murders and New York was in the midst of a crack epidemic. In 2018, the number of murders had dropped to 295, according to NYPD data. But in recent years, issues like stop-and-frisk, police shootings, incarceration and police relations with the community have risen to the fore.

"With all due respect to everyone running, there are only two criminal justice reformers in this race -- and that is me and Ms. Cabán," City Councilman Rory Lancman said at a May 19 debate. "There are only two genuine criminal justice reformers sitting at this table."

Last week, Lancman made a surprising announcement to drop out of the race, deciding to throw his support behind Cabán's rival, Katz.

While some New Yorkers still embrace the "tough-on-crime" approach, a growing tide of people see it leading to too many poor and minority New Yorkers winding up in prison. In 2013, Mayor Bill de Blasio won in a landslide election on a platform of ending the "tale of two cities" that divided rich and poor New Yorkers, and doing away with stop-and-frisk, a police practice that he said unfairly targeted black and Latino men.

Since his victory, that perspective has gained more traction both inside the city and across the northeast corridor. Joining Cabán on the stump is Larry Krasner, Philadelphia's newest district attorney, who was elected in 2018. The former civil rights lawyer has catalyzed a drop in incarceration rates, from about 6,500 inmates the month before he assumed office to about 4,700 in February, according to the city's NPR station.

PHOTO: Tiffany Caban canvasses for votes in Queens, New York, June 21, 2019.
Tiffany Caban canvasses for votes in Queens, New York, June 21, 2019.
James Okungu/ABC News

Boston's new progressive district attorney, Rachel Rollins, has also voiced support for Cabán. But Cabán said it's not enough to have just a handful of progressive DAs.

"There needs to be more of us," she said. "This race is going to have an immediate and profound effect on the lives of the 2.3 million people in Queens, but I also do see it as having a big national impact. There's a real opportunity to be a model for what criminal justice reform looks like, especially in larger urban areas."

Will another progressive beat the Queens machine?

On Sunday, Ocasio-Cortez headlined a rally for Cabán in a park in Queens that also brought together half a dozen progressive office holders under banners that read "People Powered Justice" and "Rage Against the Queens Machine."

Ocasio-Cortez and Cabán first met a few months ago at the launch of the congresswoman's Queens district office. Cabán joked that Ocasio-Cortez performed better than a prosecutor as she grilled President Donald Trump's advisers from the dais in the first months of her term.

After Cabán launched her campaign in January, the two spoke again and an endorsement followed in May.

"I don't want to speak for her, but I don't think it was about anointing someone," Cabán said. "I think she looked at the community support that we had built."

At the rally on Sunday, Ocasio-Cortez said that Cabán would be a "healer" for a population battered by years of aggressive poling that effectively criminalized poverty.

"I do very few endorsements because it's not just about being progressive," Ocasio-Cortez told ABC News after the event. "I think it's really exciting to see how local races like these can impact our national discourse and how we talk about things more compassionately."

But a few yards away from the site of the rally, some voters expressed skepticism. Cabán faces a steep uphill climb in the borough with its larger and more diverse electorate than Ocasio-Cortez's NY-14 district, and its storied history filled with the "tough on crime" attitude that still resonates with residents.

PHOTO: Tiffany Caban consults her campaign team in Queens, New York, June 21, 2019.
Tiffany Caban consults her campaign team in Queens, New York, June 21, 2019.
James Okungu/ABC News

"She seems to just want to be easy on crime, and you can't do that in Queens," said Patricia Ellis, a retired school administrator, who said she plans to vote on Tuesday but hasn't settled on a candidate. Brown "ran a tight ship for the most part," she said.

Another Queens resident, Joshua Selbach, said he was inclined to support Cabán because he liked and trusted Ocasio-Cortez. But he said he would be busy at work on Tuesday and might not make it to the polls.

Indeed, turnout is expected to be low. In a city where recent district attorneys held their posts for decades, many New Yorkers don't know that district attorneys are elected. For most of the last few decades, New York has seen remarkably little turnover in its district attorneys. Led by Robert Morgenthau, who served as Manhattan DA from 1975 until 2009, DAs in New York's five boroughs served an average of 22 years. In Queens, Brown, who served for 28 years, announced this spring that he would not seek another term, and he died shortly after.

Cabán's opponents have responded to her growing profile by tacking to the political left, throwing their support behind such reforms as ending cash bail. But they have also repeatedly denigrated her lack of experience to lead a team of prosecutors.

"The election is all about turnout -- who can identify and turn out their potential voters," Muzzio added.

Among the hundreds of canvassers Cabán has knocking on doors, as part of an active volunteer base across Queens that includes Bernie Sanders supporters in Astoria and Black Lives Matter activists in South Jamaica, many told ABC News that after Trump's election, their anger turned into political engagement, and after Ocasio-Cortez's upset win in 2018, that engagement saw renewed energy.

On Friday, amid canvassing in Corona, Cabán asked a volunteer for a weather forecast, and someone told her that it would be sunny for the weekend, but Tuesday's primary day would likely see rain.

"I think that bodes well for us," she responded. "Our supporters are hardcore."

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